Catherine Herrera performs in Springfield for the March 2020 Illinois state-level Poetry Out Loud competition. The pandemic forced this year's competition to go virtual. Credit: Provided

NORWOOD PARK — Catherine Herrera has become somewhat of a local celebrity since winning the state championship for the national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud in March.

Herrera, 17, performed one of her winning poems for the school’s Local School Council meeting March 9 and has received praise even outside of the Taft hallways. She’s received media attention and was highlighted by statewide art councils for her win. She was also featured in the student spotlight at the most recent Board of Education meeting.

“Although I was extremely surprised I won, I felt like after a while I could understand and be proud of myself because I have been doing Poetry Out Loud since my sophomore year,” Herrera said. “It made me realize how much progress I have made.”

The Taft High School senior competed at the national level at the beginning of May, reaching the regional semifinals before being eliminated.

Taft High School senior won the 2021 state championship for the national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud. Credit: Provided

“I’m glad I got to leave my mark at Taft and am happy to represent my school and state,” she said.

Herrera’s victory at the state level came in her third year of competing at Poetry Out Loud. She also made it to state for the 2020 poetry competition but did not advance to the final round.

This year, the competition went digital due to the pandemic, which means Herrera wasn’t able to perform her poems for an audience as in years prior. But her growth as a performer meant she was able to to recite a poem she’d practiced as a junior but didn’t get to showcase: “The Collar” by George Herbert.

Out of the three poems Herrera performed, Herbert’s was her favorite because of the time she spent working on it and because of its clear storyline, she said. The poem follows a character struggling with faith and wanting to reject belief in God — only to discover he does believe.

“The narrator was so clear so it felt like I could delve into their emotions of this crisis,” Herrera said. “That struggle really helped me create the poem into an emotional piece.”

Watch Herrera perform “The Collar” by George Herbert:

YouTube video

Herrera isn’t new to the stage. She’s performed in the school’s theater program and in the city’s Chicago Youth TheatreFest.

In 2019 and 2020, Herrera was ranked one of the top three performers in the festival. This year, she won the musical theater competition and was named the most outstanding performer in the Chicago Public Schools festival, which was held virtually in January.

“Poetry Out Loud and Chicago Youth TheatreFest were some of my favorite experiences in high school because it wasn’t about the winning portion — it was about my ability to perform in front of these audiences,” she said. “In performing, it allows you to be this vulnerable person and let your emotions out. That’s not something you get to experience every day.”

Herrera plans to attend Columbia University in the fall and wants to continue performing poetry and theater — but she’s crossing her fingers that she can do it in-person again soon. Performing digitally made her more nervous and nit-picky about every word, she said.

William Howard Taft High School as seen in the Norwood Park neighborhood on April 29, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Bryan Wilson, Taft’s drama teacher who coordinated the poetry contest this year, helped coach the 17-year-old all the way to the national competition and worked with her for the Youth TheatreFest.

I‘ve seen a real dedication to the art and a real passion, whether it is musical theater or poetry,” Wilson said of Herrera’s skills. “It’s not about fame or ego-filling needs; it’s about the art and creativity. She is creating really good stuff and I’ve seen that discipline grow.”

Principal Mark Grishaber said Herrera is a great student who is an example of Taft’s talent. He said poetry is a cornerstone of the school.

“Our kids love to dance and they love to recite poetry,” said Grishaber, who used to be a Louder Than A Bomb coach. “The Poetry Out Loud competition every year is one of our biggest ones that pack our auditorium.”

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William Howard Taft High School as seen in the Norwood Park neighborhood on April 29, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago